Reflections on My Experience as a Genetics & Public Policy Fellow

Posted by: Christa Wagner, PhD, 2016-17 ASHG/NHGRI Genetics & Public Policy Fellow

If you had asked me when I started my PhD if I could envision myself working in public policy, including as a staffer in the U.S. Senate, I would have said no way! But this reality is the beauty and excitement of the ASHG/NHGRI Genetics & Public Policy Fellowship, which has exposed me to policymaking in the executive and legislative branches of the U.S. Government, as well as with the Science Policy Department at ASHG.

As a graduate student at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, my research on a complex genetic disorder that often results in immune deficiencies opened my eyes to issues in bioethics and policymaking. I wondered how non-scientists in state and federal law-making bodies were informed about the scientific and health implications of their policies. I stepped out of the box and took a short leave of absence from graduate school to work with the Policy Director at the Ovarian Cancer National Alliance in Washington, D.C., and was hooked.

Breaking the Ice

The Genetics & Public Policy Fellowship has been essential and a life-changing experience in my transition from an academic research environment into policy and advocacy. I began my fellowship in the Policy and Program Analysis Branch (PPAB) at the National Human Genome Research Institute (NHGRI). I helped the team keep up with new legislation in Congress and with regulations in other agencies that would affect NHGRI researchers and grantees. I helped assemble the FY2018 Congressional Budget Justification, which each agency compiles yearly to outline financial needs and highlight program successes and goals. Since 2016 was an election year, I also helped to draft the presidential transition team documents, again outlining the important work being conducted by intramural and extramural researchers at NHGRI.

Lessons in Drinking from a Fire Hose

My second rotation was a primer in hitting the ground running, as I joined the office of Senator Sherrod Brown just before Inauguration Day in January 2017. I worked on a broad range of issues in healthcare and biomedical research, including Medicare and Medicaid, infant mortality, the opioid addiction crisis, antibiotic resistance, drug pricing, and rare diseases.

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Making a trip to Capitol Hill with Genetics & Education Fellow Teresa Ramirez (credit: NHGRI)

My daily activities varied, but generally involved meeting with Ohio constituents (including graduate students!) to discuss their legislative concerns, as well as drafting bills, letters, and memos, and preparing the Senator for Senate committee hearings. I also managed Senator Brown’s health-related appropriations requests for FY2018, and represented the office in communicating with stakeholders after a blood lead level testing kit was recalled by the FDA and CDC over the summer. Additionally, I found ways to stick to my genetics roots, and in April combined DNA Day with Take Your Children to Work Day by encouraging my colleagues and their kids to celebrate by extracting strawberry DNA in our office conference room!

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Senators do care about science! (credit: Sherrod Brown via Twitter)

Coming Full Circle

I am wrapping up my fellowship by working with the science policy team at ASHG this fall. I think ASHG members would be surprised to see all that happens behind the scenes here, and I’ve enjoyed bringing the experience I’ve gained through my government rotations back to a scientific society.

At ASHG, I’ve been able to fulfill my primary goal of the fellowship: to use my knowledge and skills in bridging the gap between legislators in Washington D.C. and ASHG members. I used my scientific background to educate Society and Congressional staff about advances in gene editing technology in preparation for a Senate hearing. I also authored blog posts about changes to the NIH definition of clinical trials and FDA oversight of genomics research, and worked with ASHG members to develop a comment letter to the National Academies Committee on return of individual-specific research results.

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Meeting Canadian Senator James Cowan, ASHG Advocacy Award recipient, at the ASHG 2016 Annual Meeting (credit: ASHG)

Looking to the Future

Overall, the fellowship has been a wonderful and successful experience in solidifying my interests and informing my career trajectory. It has shown me the translatability of my research skills and allowed me to cultivate a distinct and highly valuable analytical skillset. This fellowship has opened my eyes to the incredibly diverse health and science policy worlds, teaching me how to take creative approaches to policy changes and build effective collaborations.

I am further thrilled to be joining the ranks of a wonderful fellowship alumni community. Previous fellows have been instrumental in helping me during this entire experience, from offering suggestions on Capitol Hill rotations to career advice and networking. I look forward to carrying along these relationships and experiences to my next role working in policy and advocacy on the Government Relations team at the Association of American Medical Colleges beginning in 2018.

And finally, thank you to ASHG and NHGRI for continuing to support this fellowship. I look forward to remaining a member of this community and to welcoming future classes of fellows!

 

Meet Genetics & Public Policy Fellow Nikki Meadows

Posted by: Staff

A warm welcome to Danielle (Nikki) Meadows, PhD, ASHG/NHGRI Genetics & Public Policy Fellow for 2017-18! Dr. Meadows began her first rotation at the National Human Genome Research Institute in August, and we sat down with her this week to find out more about her background and interest in science policy.

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Nikki Meadows, PhD, ASHG/NHGRI Genetics & Public Policy Fellow (courtesy Dr. Meadows)

ASHG: What made you interested in the ASHG/NHGRI Genetics & Public Policy Fellowship, and what are you hoping to get out of it?

Nikki: The endless possibilities and potential ethical pitfalls of genetics, genomics, and their related technologies has always been exciting and fascinating for me to think about. What are the possibilities? Can we actually cure millions of diseases in my lifetime (instead of just hoping we can)? If we do that, what will it cost us? How do we decide what constitutes a “disease”? I’m super short and hate to climb on counters to reach the top shelf – can I save my future children from that fate? But if the super wealthy are the only ones able to afford it, how is that fair? Questions like that were always in the back of my mind while I was pipetting at the lab bench or sitting in the lecture hall hearing about new, cool science.

Then, in my second or third year as a grad student at McGill, I ended up getting involved in student government, lured by the opportunity to represent human genetics students at the university level. My long days in the lab were soon being supplemented with (not quite as) long evenings in board rooms discussing issues that affected grad students and working on policies to help navigate them. Around the same time, my thesis project brought some policy-type discussions into our lab meetings about worldwide folic acid fortification levels. Somewhere in that confluence, I realized that this juncture between science and policy was where I wanted to be, because I could combine two things I was captivated by.

I started poking around online and came across the ASHG/NHGRI Genetics and Public Policy Fellowship, and it seemed an ideal segue from a PhD in Human Genetics to a career in genetics public policy. I’m hoping that this fellowship will allow me find my place in policy, where there are so many stakeholders and perspectives from which to approach it. It’s three-rotation setup is seemingly perfect for that.

ASHG: Tell us about your professional background.

Nikki: I got my bachelor’s degree from Rochester Institute of Technology, where I studied biotechnology with a side of theatre arts and sociology. From there I took a year off to decide what I wanted to do next; specifically whether I wanted to pursue an MD or an MD/PhD or a PhD. To help me decide, I joined John Gottsch’s lab at the Wilmer Eye Institute at Johns Hopkins, and had the opportunity to work in the clinic setting and the lab setting as we were studying the genetic basis of Fuchs Corneal Dystrophy. The lab won out – at the end of the year, I accepted a position in Rima Rozen’s lab at McGill University. Under Rima’s supervision, I completed my PhD in Human Genetics, where I was studying how genes and nutrients affect the outcome of malaria.

As mentioned above, during this time I was also involved in student government at McGill, and in my final year, I was elected to serve as the Financial Affairs Officer at the McGill University Post-Graduate Student Society. Continuing my own trend, I took another year and a half “off” after graduation, and I spent that time teaching math and science back in my hometown.

ASHG: What are your main areas of interest in science policy?

Nikki: STEM/STEAM Education (A for “Arts” because STEM needs creativity), how we bring new genetic technologies to the public and ensure their safety and privacy, and how we keep genetic information from being used to discriminate.

ASHG: Describe yourself in 3 words.

Nikki: tenacious, resourceful, whimsical

Nikki Meadows, PhD, is ASHG’s newest Genetics & Public Policy Fellow. You can find her on Twitter at @dn_meadows. Interested in similar topics? Applications for the 2018-19 fellowship open in January 2018.

An ASHG Fellow’s Perspective on Conference Prep, Part 2: Conference Events

Posted by: Teresa Ramírez, PhD, 2016-17 ASHG/NHGRI Genetics & Education Fellow

See Part 1 of Teresa’s guide, which focuses on networking

Conferences offer a variety of networking events you should fully take advantage of, but keep in mind that scientific sessions and visiting the exhibit hall can also provide new opportunities.

Before attending a conference, it is always a good idea to glance at the agenda and mark workshops of interest. Identify speakers whom you would like to meet. Each conference is unique because each offers various workshops, resources for different career levels, and receptions that allow you to network in a safe space. There is no need to feel shy or stay quiet at a conference; you can always ask questions. Use this time to explore, learn, listen, and communicate.

Use Presenting as an Opportunity

Each conference I’ve attended has provided me with great opportunities that I would have never imagined. I have learned to feel more confident while presenting my research. Was I nervous? Of course, but the more I practiced, the more comfortable I felt. Constructive feedback from people who visited my posters or talks has helped me improve my presentation skills. I was asked questions that provided me with great ideas about what to do next in my research project.

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Teresa Ramírez presents her research at the 2017 Japan-NIH Joint Symposium on Advances in Biomedical Research (courtesy Dr. Ramírez)

Presenting a poster or an oral presentation at a conference can also be a good way to interact with people at various career levels, which may lead you to discover similar interests. Be ready with your elevator pitch about your research (a minute or two) and your own branding statement (a simple statement). No need to be arrogant but in simple terms, describe who you are and your interests.

Remember the Exhibit Hall

Most conferences have an exhibit hall with vendors, institutions, resources, and career centers. Take advantage and visit them. This can help improve your networking skills or spark ideas for the next step of your career. By strolling around conference exhibit halls, I have learned about summer internships, scholarships, fellowships, post-baccalaureate programs, and graduate schools. Now, I learn about new job opportunities or professional/leadership training opportunities.

Relax and Enjoy the Experience

You never know whom you will meet or what you can learn from a conversation with a stranger. So make sure you have a plan but also go with the flow and enjoy every minute of your conference experience. Don’t stress about it. At conferences, I have met people who became life time friends and wonderful mentors who have been instrumental in my career through their advice and support.

Please check out the ASHG website for more information on trainee opportunities, resources, and ASHG 2017.

Teresa Ramírez, PhD, is the 2016-2017 ASHG/NHGRI Genetics & Education Fellow. Learn more about the Genetics & Education Fellowship.

An ASHG Fellow’s Perspective on Conference Prep, Part 1: Networking

Posted by: Teresa Ramírez, PhD, 2016-17 ASHG/NHGRI Genetics & Education Fellow

Attending national conferences can be intimidating or exciting. The first one I attended was quite overwhelming. Do you remember how you felt at yours? Did you ask yourself questions like: why is it important to attend a national conference? How do I prepare? How can I make the most of it? What should I do and how do I network? These thoughts can be nerve-wracking, but don’t worry: these tips will help ease your nerves and guide you to prepare for the next one.

Meet People and Follow Up

As an undergraduate student at California State University, Dominguez Hills, I participated in the NIH-funded Minority Biomedical Research Support (MBRS) program, where I learned about the do’s and don’ts of attending conferences. First, look and dress professionally because first impressions make a difference.

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Teresa Ramírez at a recent meeting of SACNAS (Advancing Chicanos/Hispanics & Native Americans in Science) (courtesy Dr. Ramírez)

Second, be sure to have business cards. It might seem outdated, but business cards can help break the ice and start conversations. I know that reaching out and introducing yourself might be uncomfortable, but it will all be worthwhile even if you end up feeling dead tired and drained. Make sure your business cards include your full name, degree/title, organization, contact information, LinkedIn URL, and something that can grab people’s attention in a positive way. One of my tips is to immediately write on the back of each card collected the date you met that person, key words to help you remember the conversation, and the name of the event/location. These notes are helpful because, believe it or not, you will start collecting tons of cards and by the end of the day, you will forget which card belongs to whom. Nurture these new relationships by writing follow up emails; showing interest and professionalism can set you apart.

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In 2016, Dr. Ramírez presented on STEM careers to a group of high school interns, a talk she was invited to give by a contact whom she met at a dinner. (courtesy Dr. Ramírez)

By networking, you never know who you can meet and what the outcome can be. You can meet your next mentor, find out about a new opportunity, or start a new collaboration. You might even get invited to do a research talk or share your story with K-16 students, like I did. Keep reminding yourself to be open-minded and network with new people during meals. Attendees usually feel comfortable sitting with people they know, but this is the right time to try sitting with unfamiliar faces to start a conversation. During this time, you have the opportunity to network, introduce yourself, and even use your scientific elevator pitch. I have sat in tables with total strangers feeling a little uncomfortable at first but at the end, had wonderful conversations and met new friends.

Please check out the ASHG website for more information on trainee opportunities, resources, and ASHG 2017.

Teresa Ramírez, PhD, is the 2016-2017 ASHG/NHGRI Genetics & Education Fellow. Learn more about the Genetics & Education Fellowship.

Welcome to HHMI-ASHG Fellow Jennifer Hu

Posted by: Staff

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Jennifer Hu, HHMI-ASHG Medical Research Fellow (Courtesy Ms. Hu)

In partnership with the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI), we’re excited to welcome HHMI-ASHG Medical Research Fellow Jennifer Hu, BS, to a year-long position studying arteriovenous malformations. Jennifer, a medical student, is one of 79 HHMI Fellows who will begin their research experience this summer, at laboratories across the U.S.

“The Med Fellows Program allows exceptional MD, DVM, and DDS students to effectively shift course and conduct rigorous research at top institutions across the country…we hope that each student comes away further empowered to pursue a career as a physician-scientist,” said David Asai, senior director in science education at HHMI in a press release.

Jennifer, currently a third-year medical student at the Cleveland Clinic Lerner College of Medicine, will be working with longtime ASHG member Matthew Warman, MD, at the Boston Children’s Hospital. Her project involves understanding how somatic mutations can drive the formation of vascular anomalies – in particular, arteriovenous malformations.

“The options for children currently affected by AVMs are limited and they often recur despite the best medical and surgical efforts,” Jennifer explained. “Using a mouse model, we aim to recapitulate somatic mutations that have been previously identified from patient tissues. Showing that this mutation can recreate the AVM in a mouse model will allow us to understand the development of the disease and have a new model in which to test existing or new therapies,” she said.

Long term, Jennifer plans to build upon this experience to become a physician-scientist. “In medicine, we often hear the phrase, ‘treat the patient, not the disease.’ Our ever-growing understanding of genetics makes disease personal. As a future physician-investigator, I want to partner with patients in research, not just do research with patients,” she said.

Launched 28 years ago, the HHMI Medical Research Fellows Program supports each Fellow through a year-long research project with a mentor of the Fellow’s choosing, and also facilitates peer networking among Fellows and alumni as well as seminars with senior investigators. For more information, see the Program website.